Home >Opinion >Columns >Opinion | We need to reappraise our attitude to business failure
File photo of V. G. Siddhartha.  (Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint)
File photo of V. G. Siddhartha. (Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint)

Opinion | We need to reappraise our attitude to business failure

As the tragedy of Siddhartha was playing out, social media was abuzz with rumours that he’d fled India

It is difficult to conclude what really drove V.G. Siddhartha, the embattled promoter of the Café Coffee Day (CCD) chain, to his tragic end. What has been clear for over a year now is that the son-in-law of the powerful Karnataka politician and erstwhile chief minister S.M. Krishna had been under increasing financial duress, which forced him to sell his 20% stake in mid-tier IT services firm Mindtree Ltd to Larsen and Toubro Ltd for 3,200 crore. But if the sale, which also sealed the fate of Mindtree’s original promoters, was expected to help him pay off his loans, it didn’t achieve that.

Since news of Siddhartha’s disappearance and a letter purportedly written by him surfaced two days ago, there have been attempts to gauge the precise level of his indebtedness.

CCD’s parent firm Coffee Day Enterprises Ltd owed 6,500 crore to various entities and, since his proceeds from the Mindtree deal were a much watered down 2,100 crore net of expenses and taxes, there was still sizeable debt on its books. What’s worse, a lot of it was “promoter level debt" with repayments expected over the next few months.

Besides, most of his other businesses, including real estate, hospitality, mining and transportation, have also been underperforming. He was also under substantial pressure from lenders, including a bank which also played a key role in the Mindtree transaction, and a particular private equity firm which was anxious about its early investment in a company that had lost nearly 44% of its value after its initial public offering.

Yet, none of this explains the final tragic decision to end his life. He was in the middle of negotiations for the company’s vending business and also had substantial income possibilities by way of rentals from its real estate holdings.

That apart, CCD’s operational numbers show little signs of strain. Its net operational revenue for 2018-19 was 4,264 crore, up 13% year-on-year, while Ebitda (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) at 961 crore was up 15% over the previous year. Of course, the chain had been growing rapidly, perhaps too rapidly, but that’s the nature of the food and beverage retailing business.

No, Siddhartha’s final decision remains baffling. Next week, on 8 August, CCD will declare its second-quarter results. That’s when we might get an inkling of his unfortunate motivations, the “mistakes" and the “financial transactions" he refers to in his letter, of which he says his “team, auditors and senior management" were “totally unaware" of.

Is this a Ramalinga Raju kind of confession, and, if so, is there a Satyam-like money trail in the books? That could also explain why the financials of the group, which hardly appear alarming to outsiders, were worrying enough for the man to take such an extreme step.

But even as we look for answers to these questions, it is also an appropriate time to confront the monster in our midst, one that we may have created. It is time that Indian society—including, and in particular, the media—takes a hard look at its attitude towards business failures.

As John Steinbeck wrote so memorably in his 1952 classic East Of Eden: “It would be absurd if we did not understand both angels and devils, since we invented them." The devil we have germinated over the last few years is one of demonizing business failures, treating them as a virus that will infect us all unless we stamp them out at first whiff.

As much as we are ready with hosannas when we hear of multi-billion dollar deals, we are equally ready to strike with ferocity any business tycoon who dares to lose.

In this unbelievably unforgiving world that we have created, a businessman can do no wrong when he is on top and no right when he is down.

After all, today’s villains, including Vijay Mallya, Ravi Parthasarathy and Naresh Goyal, are the same people whose entrepreneurial spirit created not just companies but entire industries.

Much as there is to dislike about the many wrongs each may have committed, there is also need for perspective on their failures. Rarely does a businessman set about to destroy a venture that he or she has set up with so much effort and zeal. Circumstances, an adverse environment, abrupt changes in government policy or simple missteps can have a massive impact.

Often, a wrong business call in one year becomes a terrific call just a few years later. It is the nature of the beast, unless we live in an oligarchy like Russia or under a state-controlled regime as in China. In market-driven economies, businesses by their very nature are fraught with risks. If the risk-reward ratio turns too adverse, innovation and creativity suffer. What entrepreneurship certainly doesn’t need is the social media-fuelled lynch mob that descends the moment cracks appear in the edifice.

On Tuesday, even as the tragedy of Siddhartha was playing out among the waves of Netravati river in Karnataka, social media was abuzz with rumours of how the whole thing was a cover-up and he had already made good his escape to London. This is the kind of vilification that leads to such extreme reactions as decision-making gets clouded and the stigma of failure begins to haunt the entrepreneur.

The audacity that is needed to start a new business also needs a safety net of understanding and tolerance for failure if that venture collapses.

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